When the 737 Max flies again, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg will be aboard.
At the aircraft manufacturer’s annual shareholders meeting in Chicago, Muilenburg offered a moment of silence for recent crash victims, tried to mollify investors and consumers alike, and walked a tightrope between shouldering responsibility and defending Boeing’s practices.
He also vowed that he and other Boeing executives would show their faith in the Max 737 revisions by being among its first passengers once the aircraft takes to the skies again.
The Max aircraft were designed as replacements for the popular 737 model, but the new jets had key differences that pilots said they weren’t informed about. A new piece of software played a role in the crashes of two flights within six months.
Dennis Muilenburg said the pilots did not “completely” follow the procedures that Boeing had outlined to prevent the kind of malfunction that probably caused a March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. A Lion Air 737 Max crashed under similar circumstances in October.
The company’s anti-stall software, called MCAS, was a common link in both crashes. It met Boeing’s design and safety criteria, and adhered to certification protocols, Muilenburg told reporters following Boeing’s annual shareholder meeting in Chicago.
“When we design these systems, understand that these airplanes are flown in the hands of pilots,” he said. He added that Boeing was unable to find any “technical slip or gap” in building its MCAS software.
Muilenburg tried to explain why the company hadn’t told pilots about the new MCAS software in the 737 Max until after the Lion Air crash.
“When you take a look at the original design of the MCAS system. I think in some cases, in the media, it has been reported or described as an anti-stall system, which it is not.” Muilenburg told reporters shortly after Boeing’s annual shareholder meeting. “It’s a system that’s designed to provide handling qualities for the pilot that meet pilot preferences.”
Muilenburg added, “We want the airplane to behave in the air similar to the previous generation of 737s. That’s the preferred pilot feel for the airplane and MCAS is designed to provide those kinds of handling qualities at a high angle of attack.”
“It’s a purposeful design. It’s something that’s designed to be part of how the airplanes fly. So it’s part of the certification process,” the Boeing CEO said. “It’s not something that’s a separate procedure or something that needs to be trained on separately.”
“It’s fundamentally embedded in the handling qualities of the airplane. So when you train on the airplane, you are being trained on MCAS,” he added. “It’s not a separate system to be trained on.”
Muilenburg expressed remorse for the loss of life in the crashes. He promised that the tragic events would only strengthen the company’s resolve to build safe equipment for air travelers.
Muilenburg started his remarks Monday with a moment of silence for the 346 people killed in the two crashes, according to his prepared remarks reviewed by CNN Business. He insisted that Boeing makes safety its top priority, and he said the company has been doing everything it can to find a solution. And he vowed the 737 Max will become the safest plane in the air once Boeing develops a fix to the automatic safety feature that is the focus of the two crash investigations.
“These enduring values are at the core of everything we do,” Muilenburg said in his prepared remarks. “Yet, we know we can always be better. We have a responsibility to design, build and support the safest airplanes in the sky. The recent accidents have only intensified our dedication to it.”
However, Muilenburg refused to be drawn into questions of his resignation or plans to break up the combined CEO/chairman role he now occupies.
He and other Boeing brass will demonstrate their confidence in the Max makeovers.
Muilenburg said again that the company is getting close to a software fix. It has completed 146 flights of the 737 Max, totaling roughly 246 hours of air time with the updated software. He said he personally has flown on two of those test flights.
And in response to a shareholder’s question, Muilenburg said Boeing executives would be on some of the early commercial flights once the planes return to service.
“It will include me and many others,” he said. “This is a really important part in showing our confidence in our product. Our Boeing employees are very supportive of doing that.”
Disgruntled investors skewered Boeing’s leader.
“You seem to have rushed the 737 [Max] into production and lost sight of some basic fail-safe things that go on,” said one shareholder. “It never should have happened that you had one easily damaged sensor control a new, critically designed safety feature.”
Muilenburg insisted that the 737 Max was not rushed. He said the plane took six years to develop and that the equipment had been deemed safe.
“I want to assure you safety is our top priority,” Muilenburg said. “That said, we can always improve.”
However, investors can take heart in that rival Airbus seems unwilling to capitalize on Boeing’s current problems.
Airbus has joined major airlines in expressing confidence that Boeing will emerge soon from a crisis caused by two fatal crashes. In the first place, that is because both giants share a stake in preserving public trust and rarely compete on safety.
“This is not good for aviation,” new Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said of the MAX crisis earlier this month.
Muilenburg also shared his comments on social media with a post to his own Twitter handle.
With a focus on safety, quality and integrity, we hold ourselves to the highest standards in our work because the stakes couldn’t be higher. pic.twitter.com/E5RSVfXRQ9
— Dennis A. Muilenburg (@BoeingCEO) April 30, 2019
Some didn’t like what he had to say:
ALWAYS easy to blame a dead pilot. You should be ashamed of yourself
— SoberAirlinePilot (@SoberPilot) April 30, 2019
I will never fly Boeing again and I have spent thousands of dollars in my lifetime flying
— PoeEternal (Delia) 🕇 (@PoeEternal) April 30, 2019
I’ve toured Boeing, bought tix just to fly the 787, LOVED this damn company. And now I feel utterly betrayed by you and @boeing. Shame on all of you.
— Caroline Greeven (@carolinegreeven) April 30, 2019
Muilenburg’s video had to compete with video from Paul Njoroge, an Ethiopian man who lost his entire family in the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
"There's a lot Boeing isn't telling us."
A man who lost his entire family in the Ethiopian Airlines crash is suing for negligence pic.twitter.com/Gu3htuK7Nc
— TicToc by Bloomberg (@tictoc) April 29, 2019
The annual gathering comes amid new revelations about what Boeing did and did not disclose about important features on the 737 Max.
The safety feature is an alert that lights up in the cockpit if a plane’s angle-of-attack sensors transmit faulty data about the pitch of the plane’s nose. This feature is known as an angle-of-attack disagree light and was included in previous versions of the 737.
Southwest did not know about the change until after the fatal crash of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia. The airline, in a statement to CNBC, said Boeing had indicated through its manual that the disagree lights were functional on the 737 Max.
Southwest said Boeing told the airline that the disagree lights were inoperable only after the Lion Air crash. The airline subsequently took action to turn the alerts on.
Boeing has promised to retrofit the 737 Max with the indicators.
Boeing, in a statement to CNBC, said the “angle-of-attack” disagree lights would be included as a standard Max feature.
“As we return to service, all customers will have the AOA disagree alert as standard and have the option to include the AOA indicator at no cost,” a Boeing spokesperson said. “This change will be made to all MAX aircraft – production and retrofit.”
The crisis continues to hurt the company’s sales and profits, as airline execs remain wary.
On Tuesday, Virgin Australia said it had reached an agreement with Boeing to defer deliveries of 737 Max aircraft.
In a statement, the company said it would delay first deliveries of Boeing Max 737 jets from November 2019 to July 2021.
“We will not introduce any new aircraft to the fleet unless we are completely satisfied with its safety,” Virgin Australia Chief Executive Paul Scurrah said.